Peter Cook signs "I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees" from a poem by Pablo Neruda. Photo: Alexa Rubinstein (’09)
Peter Cook can’t hear music. But he can see it. And feel it. And sense it.
This ability is “innate,” according to Cook, an assistant professor with Columbia’s American Sign Language–English Interpretation program. Cook has been deaf since contracting spinal meningitis when he was three years old.
That sense of innate rhythm and musicality comes through in Cook’s poetry and storytelling, which has won raves from audiences around the world.
“Most of my poetry is visual,” he says in America Sign Language (ASL). We’re speaking with the help of Candace Hart, a full-time staff interpreter with Columbia. “It looks like a film,” continues Cook. “It looks like a movie in my mind. It’s a sequence of images.”
His sign language is so fluid and mesmerizing, it seems surprising that Cook, 48, didn’t learn ASL until he went off to college at the Rochester Institute of Technology. (He grew up learning lip reading.) It was the mid-1980s and there was an explosion of deaf poetry in Rochester, he says. Cook, who was studying graphic design, performed some poems at a publishing conference and was approached by Gregory Kolovakos, the head of the literature program of the New York State Council on the Arts. Funding from the agency allowed Cook to start the Flying Words Project with Kenny Lerner, a poet who is not deaf but is fluent in ASL.
Cook began his work at Columbia in 1995 at the very start of the ASL-English Interpretation program. He left the college for a couple of years to work full time as a storyteller but returned in 2003. He teaches a variety of classes, but one of his favorites focuses on creativity and sign language by having students use ASL to write stories and poems—much like what he does in his own performance pieces.
Cook says he considers both deaf and hearing people to be his primary audiences, but he changes his material depending on who’s in the crowd. For a deaf audience, Cook uses “hand-shape rhymes,” which are like plays on words, the same sign taking on different meanings.
Cook says he feels fortunate to be at Columbia, one of only a few universities with a four-year ASL program. “As an artist, I just want to keep on creating and being creative,” he says. “Academically, I hope whatever I’m doing with my time will contribute to deaf studies.”
Need, a video by Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner